Critical Offseason Approaches for San Francisco

Jan 14, 2004 at 12:00 AM

When the 49ers hired Dennis Erickson last offseason, San Francisco fans knew that change was in the air, for better or for worse. After a 7-9 start to Erickson's San Francisco career, they got their answer.

While the 7-9 season can't be solely blamed on Erickson, the 49ers enter the offseason with a lot of question marks and not a lot of answers.

Will the team be able to resign future perennial All-Pro Julian Peterson and corner Ahmed Plummer? Will emerging state Kevan Barlow return after his first 1,000 yard rushing season? Where will Owens end up and will we be compensated? After such a great start against Chicago in the opening game, what went wrong?

The team's first and most obvious priority is re-signing Julian Peterson. Teams must game plan around Peterson because he creates havoc on every play. The fourth year pro bowler from Michigan State led the team with 7 sacks and finished second on the team in tackles with 95. Losing Peterson would be catastrophic to a young and improving defense that ranked 13th in the NFL this year.

At 6'3, 226 pounds, Owens creates matchup problems and is one of the greatest offensive threats in the game. However, Owens drops passes too frequently and causes too much of a public relations headache to warrant the 20 million dollar signing bonus that he wants. The best case scenario for the 49ers would be to franchise Owens and get two first round draft picks for him. The team already has emerging star Brandon Lloyd waiting in the wings, and could find another solid receiver with one of the first round picks they receive from Owens. San Francisco is also likely to lose starting receiver Tai Streets, who wants to play closer to the East Coast and already tried to leave last offseason.

Plummer and Barlow are interesting situations. The team has stated that Peterson is their first priority, making Plummer and Barlow second on the priority list. Will the team have enough money to re-sign Peterson, Plummer and Barlow? That remains to be seen. Plummer isn't a superstar, but has emerged as a solid corner and Barlow is the best running back on the roster. If the offense wishes to have a competitive running game, Barlow needs to be re-signed. As a restricted free agent, Barlow is likely to return to the team next season. The 49ers would like to have Plummer back in the fold for next season, but the team shouldn't break the bank on him. With so many other good corners available through free agency and in the draft, the team should be able to afford Plummer if he wants to return.

The choices the 49ers make regarding their free agents over the next few months will dictate who they sign and how they draft. With the loss of Owens and Streets imminent, the 49ers will need to either sign a starting receiver or draft a one during the top three rounds of the draft. The potential free agents aren't too enticing at receiver, with Darrell Jackson (Sea), Marcus Robinson (Balt.) and Kevin Dyson (Tenn.) the available top pass catchers. A more likely scenario would be drafting a potential star. The Larry Fitzgerald's will be long gone before the 49ers draft at the #16 slot, but a player like Rashaun Woods from Oklahoma State and Reggie Williams from Washington are a possibility.

The team also had a lot of meltdowns along the offensive line during the year. A good crop of free agents will be available on the offensive line. Orlando Pace (Stl.), Walter Jones (Sea.) and John Tait (K.C.) will all be available at tackle, but all will be out of the 49ers' price range. Most of the problems can be attributed to injuries, but the line isn't getting any younger and a good guard or tackle could be found in the third or fourth round. Until last season, the 49ers hadn't drafted an offensive tackle in the first round since Harris Barton in 1987, so it is unlikely they will select one during the first two rounds.

Plummer's uncertain status makes picking up a defensive back a priority. A native of Ohio, Plummer has already indicated he would love to play in Cincinnati. San Francisco ranked 26th in the league in pass defense and will need to upgrade their defensive backfield if they want to compete with the division's high powered offenses in St. Louis and Seattle. The free agent cornerback crop is one of the best in recent memory. However, the Champ Bailey's and Troy Vincent's will be way out of the 49er's price range. The team will have to draft a corner and if the 49ers get a first round draft pick from a team signing Owens, they could use one of the picks on a defensive back. DeAngleo Hall from Virginia Tech possesses the speed and vertical jump to be a shut down corner in the NFL.

Starting defensive end John Engelberger is also a free agent. The team is already thin on the defensive line, and will need to draft a defensive lineman somewhere in the draft. Warren Sapp will be on the market, but with so many young defensive linemen available in the draft, it would be smarter to draft a defensive lineman than sign one. Also, defensive team leader Bryant Young isn't getting any younger and the team will have to draft a defensive lineman sometime in the next few seasons, so this may be the year.

With key free agent losses looming, the most pressing need right now for the 49ers is a wide receiver and cornerback. But things will change as the offseason progresses and the team begins to see who they will lose and who they will add. This offseason will be critical for the 49ers if they want to restore their once proud tradition.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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